Asian Americans may change their eating habits to favor less healthy mainstream American foods in an effort to fit in with white American society. These findings have emerged from a recent study by researchers at Stanford and other institutions, who suggest that such behaviors could contribute to the trends of increasing obesity among generations of immigrants.
“It’s not just being here that exposes them to worse food,” said Benoit Monin, associate professor of organizational behavior at the Graduate School of Business and an author of the study. “It’s something about the identity threat that Asian Americans face that leads them to want to fit in and eat…less healthy food.”
The study, titled “Fitting in but Getting Fat,” appears in Psychological Science and involves researchers at Stanford, the University of Washington and UC-Berkeley.
The first part of the study asked participants on the Stanford campus to list their favorite foods. Those in the experimental group were asked whether they spoke English by the experimenter before receiving the questionnaire, while those in the control group were not asked that question. Both groups were then asked to list their favorite foods.
The study found that more of the “threatened” Asian-American participants listed traditional American foods as their favorites than the control group; the statistics were 75 percent and 25 percent for the respective groups. White participants showed no change. The findings point to the conclusion that the “threat” to their American identity pushed these participants to choose more mainstream foods.
“The claim is that it carries over at many other levels; it’s not just about food,” Monin said. “It’s like when I’m telling you your food makes you weird, it means you’re weird. All these things are connected when a group feels like it’s not accepted.”
In the second portion of the study, Asian and white Americans in Seattle, Wash., were again randomized into two groups. One group was told, “Actually, you have to be American to be in this study,” and a control group did not hear that phrase. The participants were then asked to pick a dish from two menus, one Asian and one American, to be eaten at a later date.
Again, the “threatened” group was more likely to choose an American dish than the control group, and the choices they made contained on average 182 more calories and 12 more grams of fat.
“Even though it’s not a lot of calories, you can imagine if every day they’re governed by this desire to fit in, it’s really going to add up,” Monin said.
Monin hopes that the study will help bring unconscious behaviors to light and eventually allow ethnic foods to become increasingly mainstream. He said acceptance of food would help immigrants feel more accepted overall and that it would be beneficial for American culture as a whole.
“On the other side, it’d be good for white Americans also,” he said. “If the healthier ethnic foods become more available and normal, it would be good for them if they’re eating fewer cheese steaks and burgers and whatever else is considered mainstream food in America.”